The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion This 30-second video is absolutely devastating for Donald Trump

Placeholder while article actions load

What Donald Trump is doing on the campaign trail

MANCHESTER, NH - NOVEMBER 7: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event at SNHU Arena in Manchester, NH on Monday November 07, 2016. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

John McCain — one of the most respected voices in the Republican Party on national security — was asked a direct question: Are you comfortable with Donald Trump possibly having control of our nuclear arsenal?

This should be a no-brainer, since McCain is supporting Trump for president, a gig that includes having a measure of control over that aforementioned nuclear arsenal.

But in answering the question, McCain pulled a big time homina homina homina. He declined to answer, other than to say: This is on you to figure out, American voters!

That’s not an exaggeration in the least. Here’s video of the episode, which was flagged for me by a Democrat, in which McCain confronted this question in an exchange with reporters yesterday. It’s the first episode on the video:

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has repeatedly come under attack from President Trump. Here are just a few of their rocky moments. (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

Here’s the transcript:

QUESTION: Are you comfortable with Donald Trump possibly having control of the nuclear arsenal?
McCAIN: [Silence, followed by unintelligible stammering.] Anyone that the people of this country choose to be the commander in chief and the President of the United States — therefore can lead this country, and will lead in a responsible fashion. Anyone who is elected president fairly in this country. And that’s the way that our democratic system works.  That’s how our government works. The American people select the next president of the United States, knowing full well what the role of the commander in chief is. Therefore, I have the utmost respect for the verdict of the people.

The careful listener will have noted that McCain declined to say whether he himself would be comfortable with Trump gaining control of the nuclear arsenal. Instead, he essentially said that the American voters will have to take into account that electing Donald Trump president would bring about that outcome, and added that if the American people went ahead and chose Trump in the full knowledge that this is what they would be doing, then he would respect their verdict.

Republicans nominate insane person to lead America, then panic when he proves he’s insane

Translation: Better choose wisely, American voters! I’m not helpin’ ya on this one!

Let’s pause to consider how devastating this one moment is — or should be — for Trump. The 2008 Republican presidential nominee and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, a man who is widely seen as a war hero — who has been tapped by the Sunday shows to hold forth on foreign policy and national security issues probably hundreds of times — declined to say whether he would be comfortable with putting Trump in charge of the maximal destructive power of the American military.

Now, it’s certainly possible that McCain has said elsewhere that he’d be fine with Trump controlling our nukes, or that he’ll subsequently clarify that he’s certain Trump is rock solid commander-in-chief material. But it’s very easy to imagine this archetypal deer-in-the-headlights moment featured in a Democratic ad. McCain’s visible, cringing discomfort with the question is potentially a seminal moment in this campaign.

Follow Greg Sargent's opinionsFollow

After all, this comes at precisely the moment when Democrats are raising questions about Trump’s temperamental and emotional unfitness to handle foreign policy in a complicated world, and about his obvious lack of knowledge or curiosity about the complexities of international affairs — with a particular emphasis on the potential horror of allowing Trump to control nuclear weapons. (This is a high stakes political battle, as some polls have shown Trump with an advantage on terrorism, while others have shown Hillary Clinton with a wide advantage on handling crises and handling foreign policy in general.) As Clinton put it in her convention speech, summing up the Democratic case: “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.”

Could Trump actually drop out of the race? And what would happen if he did?

What’s more, Democrats are trying to line up as many Republicans as possible — see this ad from the pro-Clinton Super PAC Priorities USA as an example — to shed light on the riskiness of putting Trump in charge of our military machine, in order to win over GOP-leaning voters. McCain perfectly captured this entire argument in a 30-second performance.

But this moment also captures just how awkward supporting Trump is growing for Republicans — and indeed how reckless it is — as his instability and erratic behavior become more and more evident to everyone. McCain should be a safe incumbent, but he’s facing a potentially tough reelection fight, perhaps in part because Trump’s abusiveness and demagoguery are alienating Latino voters (of which there are many in Arizona) to an untold degree. Trump has repeatedly questioned the war hero status of McCain — “I like people that weren’t captured, okay?” he once said — which has also alarmed Republicans about Trump’s temperament. In recent days, as Trump attacked the family of a Muslim-American killed in combat, that alarm has escalated into widespread GOP panic that the Republican nominee for president is now revealing himself to be deeply, catastrophically unfit for the job.

Now McCain has shown he’s visibly uncomfortable with the question of whether the man at the top of the ticket can be trusted with nukes, but he’s voting for him anyway? That’s a hard position to sustain, both politically and substantively.

Is there anyone who doubts that many of the Republican leaders who are currently backing Trump would have just as much trouble answering the nukes question as McCain did?


UPDATE: Here’s video of just the key exchange in question: